Kidnappings at sea hit 10-year high; call to avoid Sulu Sea

KUALA LUMPUR • The number of maritime kidnappings hit a 10-year high last year, with waters off the southern Philippines becoming increasingly dangerous, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

The report coincided with news that armed men had killed eight fishermen in what appeared to be an attack by pirates in waters off southern Philippines.

Coast guard spokesman Armand Balilo said a Filipino fishing boat with 15 crew members on board was operating off Laud Siromon island, near the Zamboanga Peninsula, on Monday night when five armed men on a speedboat attacked them.

"The attackers opened fire at the fishermen," Commander Balilo said. He said eight were killed, and another five jumped overboard and swam to a nearby island. Two others who remained on the boat were unharmed.

"We consider this a piracy attack. If these were Islamist militants, they would have been taken captive and held for ransom," Commander Balilo said.

He said the attackers fled in the darkness and two coast guard ships were sent to search for them.

The IMB said in its report yesterday that while the overall number of pirate attacks has declined in recent years, 62 people worldwide were kidnapped for ransom at sea last year compared with only 19 in 2015 and nine in 2014.

"The kidnapping of crew from ocean-going merchant vessels in the Sulu Sea and their transfer to the southern Philippines represents a notable escalation in attacks," the IMB said.

It urged shipowners to avoid the Sulu Sea, which lies between eastern Malaysia and the Philippines, by routing ships to the west of Borneo island. In a string of incidents in the area last year, groups of armed men - said to be either from or linked to the Abu Sayyaf militant group - ambushed ships and seized crew for ransom.

The Abu Sayyaf are based on remote and mountainous southern Philippine islands. Their leaders pledge allegiance to terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but analysts say they are more focused on lucrative kidnappings.

Mr Noel Choong, head of the IMB's Kuala Lumpur-based Piracy Reporting Centre, said groups linked to militants were carrying out the kidnappings, particularly off West Africa and in the Sulu Sea.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2017, with the headline 'Kidnappings at sea hit 10-year high; call to avoid Sulu Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe